General Olusegun Obasanjo’s assault on academics in the late 1970s was the first open attack on Nigeria’s progressives and the idea of university autonomy in the postcolonial era. Popular student protests, built around the battle cry of ‘Ali Must Go’, was the robust response. Obasanjo’s government proved a transitional one and military rule ended two years later as President Shehu Shagari and the National Party of Nigeria took office.

However, the emergence of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985, coinciding with the rise of a new market-fundamentalist economic and political project in the United States and the United Kingdom called neo-liberalism presented this group of Nigerians, whose political and economic outlook is generally left of the centre, with a complex existentialist challenge. That they responded to this challenge poorly and tactically instead of adopting the long view and shaping their strategies accordingly is clearly demonstrated in the farcical game still playing out in Nigeria as the so-called ‘progressive’ political parties refuse to come together in a coalition to give the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the ruling party, a meaningful fight in the April general elections.

The defining element of coalition politics is the willingness of key actors to put personal ambition in service of a larger goal they consider vital to national progress and prosperity. Realising that their individual parties alone cannot make the required impact to dislodge a well-entrenched ruling party, they agree to a minimum programme reflecting the broad policy thrust of all parties in the coalition, pool resources and then take to the field, jointly mobilising the electorate to support candidates presented by that coalition. Of course that means that only one of them will get to be president if they take a majority of the votes, but that, in the view of the classical progressive tradition, is a small personal price to pay compared to the enormous benefits that would accrue to citizens nationwide.

President Umaru Yar’Adua’s illness during the last months of 2009 and the reluctance of powerful elements in the ruling PDP to cede power to Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan as specified in the 1999 Constitution unsettled the powerful cabal, composed of conservative politicians drawn from virtually all parts of the country, that the discredited generals handed power to after flawed elections that same year.

Successive rigged polls following that ‘army arrangement’ that saw Obasanjo taking power a second time in May 1999, and the president’s repressive and abrasive tactics had not given progressive politicians and their traditional allies in the media, organised labour and the higher institutions much space for maneuver. But the confusion that attended the Yar’Adua succession changed all that. Here, at last, was an opportunity to be ruthlessly exploited by progressives truly hungry for power.

It speaks volumes about the state of Nigerian progressive politics today that the hero of that important political moment turned out to be the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Lagos, known more for his regular upbraiding of the country’s corrupt rulers than for a careful and nuanced analysis of Nigeria’s social and economic challenges and the appropriate policies to be applied as remedy. The march on Abuja in the early months of 2010 led by the pastor even as the ailing president’s true condition was kept a top secret only privy to his inner court, quickly degenerated into a comical carnival. Charley Boy, the ageing comedian, Nollywood actors, and the usual Lagos airhead celebrity crowd were in full parade in the Nigerian capital, mouthing ‘progressive’ rhetoric and demanding that Goodluck Jonathan be ‘empowered’ to assume the presidency. The ‘real’ battle-hardened progressives were nowhere to be seen.

That the opposition to Jonathan quickly melted away like morning dew and Jonathan himself moved to appoint Professor Atahiru Jega, an academic and a leading thinker of the progressive camp, chairman of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) was clear indication, if indeed any was needed, of the deep legitimacy crisis that had taken hold of the election-rigging PDP and the corrupt ruling elite arrayed behind this machine.

The consensus country-wide, voiced out in beer parlours and mosques and churches and wherever else citizens gathered in their numbers, was that PDP politicians, like their fictional parallel in Achebe’s novel ‘A Man of the People’, had stolen enough and now it was time for the owner of the house to do something about this thievery. Jega was the new president’s sop to this emerging consensus; a tactical manoeuver designed to stave off the mob while he and his advisers quickly got to work repairing their party’s battered image.

As in politics and other aspects of public life, some actions can have unintended consequences. The emergence of Professor Jega, who in the early 1990s had led the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Babangida junta and its anti-poor policies, as INEC chairman was a potential game changer. Creatively and strategically exploited, the new INEC under Jega was precisely what Nigerian progressives needed to ensure that the 2011 general elections were free and transparent, and that all they needed to do was organise well politically and the elections would be theirs to lose. Jega has a well-deserved reputation as a dogged fighter for justice; a man of unbending moral principles for whom ethnic politics and ballot-stuffing, the favourite staple of Nigerian ‘politicians’, is anathema. All that was now required of the progressives was to unite, stand on a common platform and make a real bid for power.

That this did not happen, and that the three main political parties that style themselves as ‘progressive’ are yet to reach an agreement on how to jointly articulate a common policy platform two weeks to the elections, suggest that all is not well with the progressive camp. Indeed, given the once-in-a-life time opportunity about to be missed (and there is not even a whimper in apparently progressive circles about what to do to avert the impending calamity), the question has to be boldly asked: is Nigerian progressive politics now really and truly dead? If it is dead, how did this tragic development come about? Who struck the fatal blow? Or, if it has only been knocked unconscious, what is to be done to revive it?

Now, it is important that I stress at this point that these are not merely academic questions that have little or no relevance to the ‘great game’ of power politics that is now playing out in Abuja and other parts of the country. Nigeria is one of the countries on which the political stability of the African continent rests, but it is also the continental laggard, busy trying to stamp out ethnic and religious brushfires in her northeast, central region and the oil-bearing Niger region. If, however, the April elections turn out wrong, then these seemingly ‘small’ fires could quickly become part of the inferno that will ensue.

Nigeria’s stability and prosperity is vital to Africa and her trading partners. Given the sorry record of the conservative segment of the political class that has been in power since 1960, it has become obvious that a new brand of politics, grounded in a progressive intellectual platform, perhaps holds the key to the country’s regeneration. But progressive politicians are missing in action now that the conservative camp is in disarray and the April 2011 elections is for them take.


So when did the rain really begin to beat Nigeria’s progressives? I mean, seriously, the kind of rain that drenches the clothes and then seeps into the bones threatening to cause fatal pneumonia? We must locate the source of this rain in the first few years of Babangida’s rule. It is now widely accepted that Babangida’s rule was an ill-wind that forced a once proud and self-confident nation to her knees. But yet unanalysed is the specific way in which the Babangida moment, with the IMF-promoted Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) as its principal assault weapon, sapped the self-confidence of Nigeria’s intellectual class and the progressive politics that has historically used this group as a bulwark.

There can be no meaningful progressive politics without virile and active intellectuals, in academia and embedded in the people themselves. This is not the time to analyse Babangida’s methods and tactics. In any case the Lagos-based ‘The News’ magazine did this in sufficient detail in 1993, in the evening of the dictator’s rule. SAP not only killed off the middle class that supplied the bulk of the country’s army of questing intellectuals, it also made research and teaching in the universities a difficult, even dangerous proposition.

For it is not only that the suddenly worthless Naira, devalued and devalued again by the IMF battering ram, put books and academic journals out of reach, the whole idea of SAP, and the politics of its implementation, was hostile to the very notion of the university. The university is a site for free and disinterested inquiry; a place where knowledge forever goes boldly forward to challenge cant, sophistry, and entrenched power married to illicit booty. The university and its moral equivalent anywhere in the land (and this includes primary and secondary schools) is the only true shining city on a hill; radiating light and combating darkness. When you kill the university, you let slip the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Nigeria’s progressive intellectuals had made it clear right from the onset in 1985 that they were opposed to SAP, and had strenuously mobilised workers, students, women’s groups and even peasants all over the country to join hands and reject Babangida’s proposed elixir. Babangida, as the IMF, was determined to force this elixir on the patient whether it wanted it or not.

The universities and other higher institutions in the country were the centre of this formidable intellectual opposition, now about to balloon into a political one too. So, even as the pitiless economics of SAP was emptying university libraries and laboratories and transforming hitherto comfortable middle-class university teachers into mendicants scrambling for garri and groundnuts, the general’s storm troopers, in the shape of student-led secret cults financed by the junta, spread out into the campuses harassing and beating up teachers who, in Babangida’s own immortal words, were ‘teaching what they are not paid to teach’.

The destruction of Nigeria’s intellectual tradition was also being played out in the Nigerian street at the same time. Newspaper and magazine journalism in the country, while not yet able to match academia in rigour, was nevertheless rooted in the people and thus able to instantly articulate their preferences in times of social crisis. But the hard times, in combination with the greed and short-term vision of newspaper proprietors, came together to force the brightest and the best to either look for better pay in the Ponzi-type banks that were now springing up all over the place or got out of the country altogether.

The new regime of corrupt and self-serving editors unable to meaningfully analyse the policy platforms of the various political parties has its root in the ‘great transformation’ that the industry underwent in the wake of the Babangida cyclone in the late 1980s.

Elsewhere, the indigenous publishing houses and the local branches of international publishing, unable to walk the tightrope of importing raw material with scarce foreign exchange and selling their books locally at prices they knew the now vanishing middle class couldn’t afford, shut shop one after the other. Where these firms went, city bookshops followed. The other side of SAP was, of course, corruption in high places. As public library budgets were routinely embezzled by high officials, weed and darkness overtook these former citadels of light. Massive flight of university teachers back to Europe and North America where the bulk of them had trained in the 1960s and 1970s rounded the circle.

It was this herd-like flight abroad that sounded the death-knell of progressive politics in Nigeria. Nature, as the trite saying goes, abhors a vacuum. What Nigeria’s brightest minds vacated, the dim-witted and grasping quickly filled. That Nigeria’s universities, even the ‘best’ of them, today are more noted for the large number of Mercedes Benz cars in the garages of the professors than for the Nobel Prizes they win annually speak to the caliber of the ‘academics’ who now hold sway in our former centres of light. Nigerian academics in the West are prospering, but the same cannot be said of their counterparts at home.

My area of training is the humanities and social sciences – the policy sciences broadly construed. The last major book produced by a Nigerian academic living in Nigeria that the world took notice of since 1993, when Babangida quit, is Claude Ake’s ‘Democracy and Development in Africa’. So what are the rest of our ‘professors’ in their gilded towers doing?

I too was part of this unthinking ‘African flight’. It was a colossal strategic error on the part of the Nigerian progressive intellectual class. For it left unsupported the political re-flowering that the likes of Bamidele Aturu and the now deceased Ubani Chima were nurturing into being using the platform of the Democratic Alternative, a broad left of the centre political party that emerged a year after Babangida fell from power. These days, the only meaningful progressive politics you get in the country are the writings of Edwin Madunagu, Jibo Ibrahim and Biodun Jeyifo in the newspapers. Even so their columns (with the possible exception of Jibo’s) are still entombed in Marxist straitjackets and are redolent of yesterday’s ideological battles – battles that the global political left lost in the early 1980s following the rise of neo-liberalism.

Should we then go ahead and call in the undertakers? Is it over and done with for progressive politics in Nigeria even as the three political parties that claim the mantle refuse to come together and share a common policy and political platform? These and related questions will be the subject of another essay when the election results come in two weeks from now and the dust, hopefully, would have settled.

Dr Okonta is an Abuja-based writer and academic. His is currently an Open Society Fellow and a visiting scholar at Columbia University. Okonta’s latest book is ‘When Citizens Revolt: Nigerian Elites, Big Oil and the Ogoni Struggle for Self-determination.’

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